Privacy laws should apply to political parties

TheStar.com – Opinion – The Facebook data mining controversy has focused new attention on troubling holes in Canada’s privacy protections.
April 2, 2018.   By

The Harper Conservatives were innovators in the field of data-driven campaigning. They built a finely calibrated electoral machine to identify the narrow segments of voters they needed to woo and the policies and programs likeliest to do the trick. In defeating Harper, the Trudeau Liberals drew on similar micro-targeting techniques.

New technologies and the rise of social media have allowed parties to dredge and analyze endless streams of personal information. More and more, political parties thrive on big data, the more granular the better. Our privacy protections, however, have failed to keep pace.

The controversy over Cambridge Analytica, an American data analytics company that harvested information from some 50 million Facebook profiles and allegedly used it to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has focused new attention on troubling holes in our own privacy protections.

We don’t know the extent to which similar practices have been employed here. But what we do know is that the current legal framework does almost nothing to ensure that political parties obtain and use citizens’ personal information responsibly.

Unlike in most Western countries, Canadian political parties are exempt from privacy laws. This is “not a good thing,” according to Daniel Therrien, Canada’s privacy commissioner. As he told the Canadian Press last week, “The absence of regulation facilitates the manipulation of information to influence elections in a way which I think is completely contrary to the public interest.”

Clearly it is time to extend Canada’s privacy laws to include political parties. Yet parties, which benefit from the regulatory vacuum, have been reluctant to address the issue, leaving Canadians in the dark about what they know about us and how they use that information.

What little we do know is cause for concern. In 2012, for example, Jason Kenney, then the minister of citizenship, sent an email to 2,000 members of the LGBTQ community touting his government’s record on gay refugees. Many of the recipients were disturbed that the minister, whose office had derived the information from petitions, seemed to know their sexual orientation.

Had Kenney been representing any entity other than a political party, his outreach would have broken the law. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act requires that those providing personal data be made aware of the purpose when they provide it. Clearly this should apply to political parties, too.

The privacy laws also mandate that government and private companies protect personal data and that breaches be met with financial penalties.

Yet political parties, which are free from such consequences, have not always been careful in their handling of their sizable stores of sensitive data. Just last month, Alladin Abou Sharbin, a candidate for the Liberal nomination in the federal riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges in Quebec, sent an email urging his supporters to vote. Attached was a list of all Liberal members in the riding, including home addresses, phone numbers and membership IDs. Sharbin dropped out of the race, but such recklessness should carry consequences for the political party responsible.

As data-mining techniques become more sophisticated, these holes in the law become more consequential. The Cambridge Analytica data harvest was used to derive not only voters’ preferences and habits, but also their aspirations and anxieties. Such sensitive information should not be obtained without the consent of those providing it, based on a clear view of how the information will be used. And once obtained, it should be treated with the utmost care.

To the extent that micro-targeting happens without voters’ knowing about it or agreeing to it, the practice is manipulative in a way that distorts democracy. Data-hungry political parties are the last entities that should be exempt from privacy laws. If they want to know about us, they should be forced to ask.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/04/02/privacy-laws-should-apply-to-political-parties.html

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